A narrow scrape for democracy


A narrow scrape for democracy

Jul 31st 2008 | ANKARA
The Economist print edition

The judiciary shrinks from banning the ruling party


BY THE slimmest of margins, Turkey has averted the worst political crisis in
years, perhaps in decades. On July 30th the country’s constitutional court
turned down an attempt by state prosecutors to ban the ruling Justice and
Development (AK) Party on the ground that it was seeking to introduce
elements of Islamic law in defiance of the state’s avowed secularism.

A majority of six of the 11 constitutional court’s judges had, in fact,
voted to shut down the party. But to pass such a measure required the
support of seven judges, so the court settled on the minority view of four
others-including the chairman, Hasim Kilic-only to impose a fine. This is
expected to be the loss of half of AK’s state funding, which amounted to 47m
Turkish lira ($40m) last year.

"We think that this political party should take the necessary message from
this verdict," said Mr Kilic, his voice tight with emotion. In parliament,
AK deputies embraced and clapped as they watched the judge’s televised press
conference. The European Union’s enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, called
it "a good day for Turkey and for Europe".

The verdict should help end the political upheaval that has gripped Turkey
since March, when the chief prosecutor asked the court to bar the prime
minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan; the president, Abdullah Gul; and scores of
other named officials from politics for five years. They were accused of
undermining the secular republic created by Kemal Ataturk 85 years ago out
of the ruins of the Ottoman empire.

To many, the prosecution was an attempt at "a judicial coup"-perhaps the
most serious assault on Turkey’s turbulent democracy since the army seized
power from elected politicians in 1980. Despite the subsequent restoration
of democracy, the army demanded, and obtained, the resignation of an
Islamist-tinged prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, in 1997.

The army’s hand has been apparent in the latest manoeuvring against AK. But
this time Turkey’s meddlesome generals have been humiliated. Despite their
displeasure AK was re-elected with an enhanced majority in 2007. The army
failed to block the appointment of Mr Gul as president, despite an internet
message that appeared to threaten military intervention. Short of such a
hard coup, the army has no cards left to play.

That said, the court’s decision is not an outright victory for AK, despite
its supporters’ excited chants of "we will continue". Ten of the
constitutional court’s judges agreed that the party was guilty of
anti-secular activity; they disagreed only on the punishment.

The verdict should be seen as a stern warning to the party not to push its
divisive religious agenda. Earlier this year the party forced through a law
allowing girls to wear the Islamic headscarf at university, which was later
struck down by the constitutional court. Secular Turks view the headscarf as
a symbol of Islamic militancy. Even Mr Erdogan’s allies agree that he should
have done more to appease the concerns of secularists.

Within hours of the court’s verdict, Mr Erdogan spoke of the need to
strengthen unity and promised to abide by Ataturk’s principles. "The AK
party, which has never been a focus for anti-secular activities, will
continue to stand up for the fundamental values of the republic," he said.
He also declared that his government would henceforth pursue full membership
of the EU. Critics point out that he made the same promises on the night of
his electoral victory last year. Having outmanoeuvred the generals yet
again, will he abide by his pledges this time?

Sources close to the prime minister maintain that he will. A key test will
be whether he reshuffles the cabinet. A first step, say secularists, would
be get rid of the controversial education minister, Huseyin Celik, who is
accused of seeking to inject Islam into school textbooks and who was among
the 70 AK officials for whom the chief prosecutor had sought bans. An even
greater test will be whether Mr Erdogan consults the opposition in any
future effort to rewrite the constitution, an authoritarian document drawn
up by the generals after the 1980 coup.

It will take some time for the country fully to absorb the meaning of this
week’s verdict. Until recently it seemed virtually certain that the court
would rule against AK. But opinion began to shift over the past month as the
potentially disastrous effects of a ban finally seemed to sink in among
those pushing for it.

The European Commission had threatened to suspend Turkey’s accession talks
had AK been shut down. America made its displeasure known, albeit more
mildly. The global credit crunch, moreover, has hit emerging markets.
Turkey, with its enormous current account deficit, looks more vulnerable
than most.

So for more than one reason, Mr Erdogan has much to gain by focusing on
pushing the liberal political and economic reforms that marked his earlier
years in office. Mr Rehn said Turkey should now seek to regain the time
wasted by the crisis, and "resume with full energy its reforms to modernise
the country".

Some believe the judges’ change of heart may be linked to another, equally
sensational, case that has been launched against the so-called Ergenekon
conspirators. Prosecutors in Istanbul claim to have uncovered a plot by a
group of ultranationalists-among them retired generals, convicted murderers,
pro-secular journalists and academics-to overthrow AK, which draws its
support from a rising class of pious Turks and frightens many secular ones.

Some 80 alleged conspirators have been arrested. Their purported plan was to
incite chaos through a string of assassinations and bomb attacks designed to
provoke the army to intervene. There is widespread speculation that
Ergenekon may have been behind this week’s bomb attack in Istanbul that
killed 17 people, including five children and a pregnant women. But security
officials say this was more likely the work of separatist Kurdish guerrillas
of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Either way the incident was a chilling
reminder of the potential turmoil that could arise from the lack of a stable

The biggest reason for the court’s decision may be rooted in hard
parliamentary arithmetic. Even if AK had been shut down and its leading
members banned, some 300 of its deputies would have retained their seats as
independents, regrouped under a new name and formed a new government alone.
Recent opinion polls consistently suggest that AK retains a big lead over
its secular rivals.

Hopes within pro-secular circles that the threat of closure would prompt
mass defections from the party never materialised. "The secularists appear
to have finally grasped that the only way to get rid of the AK is at the
ballot box," notes an European diplomat. If so, that is a huge step forward
for Turkish democracy.